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Meter, Meter, Pumpkin Eater: Exploring Meter in Poetry

Hello my lovely poets!


Spring has sprung in my neck of the woods, and it's making this whole social distancing thing a little bit more pleasant. Sometimes I'll take a stroll around my backyard and see new life budding everywhere. There are a few nesting pairs of ducks in my vernal pool, and you know what that means...fuzzy little ducklings! What does spring look like where you are? Has it inspired any writing recently?

Today, we're going to be talking about something a little tricky. There's at least one aspect of poetry that every poet struggles with or doesn't quite understand (any poet who says otherwise is a liar liar pants on fire). And that's 10,000% fine because nobody is perfect! For me, my poetry Achilles heel is and will always be meter. I remember sitting in my Introduction to Poetry class freshman year of college, repeating Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" over and over in my head, trying to identify the stressed and unstressed syllables. But I soon realized that, like anything else, meter will come to me in time if I practice. There are still occasions when I get tripped up, but I am more confident now than when I started!


Let me clarify: Meter is NOT as scary as I probably made it sound just now. Just follow along with me, and I'll teach you the basics! If I can do it, you can do it too. :)


Meter is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem. This pattern gives poems their melodic and rhythmic feel! Stressed syllables tend to be longer, while unstressed tend to be shorter. Let's take a look at some words and identify their stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables will be in red, and unstressed syllables will be in blue:


Because

Plump

Mournful

Forever


Makes you think about how we pronounce words, doesn't it? It would sound pretty silly if we said "BEcause" or "MournFUL", right? You can notice the change in stressed to unstressed when talking out loud. There's a subtle raise in pitch when we say a stressed syllable, and a slight fall when we say an unstressed syllable. Try it out for yourself! Once I figured that out, it was definitely weird hearing myself speak for a little while.


Each metered line in a poem is also called a "foot". Each foot has a certain number of syllables in it, both stressed and unstressed. There are many different kinds of metered lines, and it really depends on which syllables are stressed and which are not. I'll show you two of the most commonly used types of meter:


Iamb Meter:


Does the term "iamb" sound a bit familiar? Our good friend Billy Shakes was a master at using the iamb, and often worked in iambic pentameter. I'll go into what that means in a minute, but first let's get the basics down.


An iamb has the first syllable unstressed and the second syllable stressed. Let's look at "Sonnet 18" by William Shakespeare. Feel free to tap your finger on your desk to help follow the pattern. Remember, unstressed syllables will be in blue, and stressed will be in red:


"Shall I / com pare / thee to / a sum / mer's day?"


It seems like a pretty solid rhythm: Ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, ba dum. The "pentameter" part that we mentioned before comes from the number of stressed syllables. So, because there are five stressed syllables, the full meter would be "iambic pentameter". You can have any number of stressed syllables in a line, it doesn't always have to be five. For example, tetrameter is four, trimeter is three, dimeter is two, and so on.


Iambic refers to which syllables are stressed.

Pentameter, tetrameter, dimeter, etc. refer to how many.



Anapest Meter:


The anapest meter is actually kind of a fun one. And it is very sing-songy! The anapest meter has the first two syllables unstressed and the third stressed. Take a look at this example from Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of a Snark":


"In the midst / of the word / he was try / ing to say."


Tap along to the beat if you feel like it! Ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum, ba da dum. I've always found anapests to be easier to identify because of their melodic quality. And Lewis Carroll is a good example of how to work with anapests if you want to try it in your own work!


Thanks for following along with me! If you found this helpful, maybe I'll create another post with the other types of meter as well. I hope that you all have a great day. Until next time!



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- W.H. Auden

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